I’m slowly reading through the mysteries of K.C. Constantine, an author I stumbled across because his most recent (possibly last?) mystery, Grievance (2000), was recommended by Michael Dirda. I started at the beginning of the series, and was surprised at how good they were. Now I fear I won’t have any language left to describe them, because they just keep getting better.
In A Fix Like This, Mario Balzic, chief of police in blue-collar Rocksburg, PA, is investigating the stabbing of Fat Manny Manditti, known bagman for a local Italian heavyweight. (“Mafia” is too big a term for Rocksburg, but you could think in that direction: head of the Italian community, numbers games, raking in illicit money without paying a lot of taxes, that kind of thing.) Balzic is worried that Manny’s big brother Tullio is going to seek revenge for the stabbing, no matter what Dom Muscotti tells him, and as usual, Balzic’s good sense doesn’t lead him wrong.
At the same time, Balzic is dealing with something that at first appears to be a side issue. He goes to a priest to get some advice on the leaders of the Italian community, and the priest himself is reeling from a huge shock: another priest, his dear friend, has been running a numbers scam in order to pay the mortgage on his church and help out some little old ladies who weren’t well-off financially. The scene in which the priest pours out his rage and grief is crackling with emotion, as well as the culture that says the emotion shouldn’t be shared. The dialogue in these books reminds me of nothing so much as Clyde Edgerton (though Edgerton writes about the South and Constantine writes about Pennsylvania): he really understands how to write the language of being human, and how that language can be shaped by class and race. The solution to the mystery — though it’s good — seems less important in comparison.
If you’re a mystery fan, I really recommend tracking these down. The most amazing things are hiding in unexpected places.